True Romance meets Japan
DIRECTOR TAKASHI MIIKE/JAPANESE/2019
Takashi Miike has a genre of filmmaking that can only be described a “Japanese Extreme”. He is an auteur who has his own voice yet plays within different standard film genres. From horror (Audition) to crime (Ichi the Killer) to action (13 Assassins), he may jump to a new setting, but to his fans, they can always tell what a Miike movie looks like.
He is also highly revered by American filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, Rob Zombie and Eli Roth. Roth so much that he gave Miike a small role in Hostel. So it’s only fitting, after years of other filmmakers being inspired by his work, he uses a little of inspiration of his own.
First Love is being billed as the Japanese True Romance, and his friendship with Tarantino makes that connection more apparent, but it has that lineage in plot only, not so much tone. Monica (Sakurako Konishi) is a prostitute who is being pimped out to repay her depraved father’s debts. He so haunts her that she actually sees ghostly images of him rising from beneath bedsheets and stalking her in a creepiness courtesy of Miike’s horror skills.
While with a detective one evening, she sees her father’s figure walking directly at her. She runs. The officer chases and she runs right past Leo (Masataka Kubota). Leo is a young boxer who fights with a stoicism that frustrates his coach. On top of Leo’s natural depression, he has also just that day been diagnosed with a brain tumor and told he has not much time to live. He is miserable. He is so distraught that he doesn’t even notice Monica run past him. When she screams for help, Leo looks up and sees the detective chasing after, he is so on autopilot, that he doesn’t even think. He just relies on his most basic instincts and clocks the detective with a right hook, knocking him clean out.
Monica tells him that she needs to run and he probably should too, since he just punched a law enforcement officer, and together they spend an evening of dodging the police, the mob and drug lords.
Along with trying to survive the evening, each has their own demons and First Love explores themes of living when freed from the shackles of bondage. Whether those shackles are from the past, in Monica’s case, the overwhelming history of abuse that swallows her self-worth and feeling she can actually be loved. To Leo’s shackles, which are more in the immediate future, and the suffocating knowledge that death is around the corner, but with that knowledge is the freedom to act bolder and in ways he wouldn’t have dreamed of just days before.
First Love doesn’t quite hit the extremes or quality levels of some of Miike’s past film, and for a movie about a prostitute and sexual abuse, it’s remarkably tame in its explicitness, especially considering the director. There is also a point towards the end when style is obviously trying to cover up for budgetary constraints. But regardless, it is an enjoyable non-stop ride in a world with scum around every corner but at the center are two people you really want to see succeed.